I remember cutting my literary teeth on the early novels of Russell Hoban. I joyfully discovered his expert blend of realism, myth and humour, while having it confirmed that I prefer fiction which walks a few steps to one side of realistic representation (wearing its hat at a jaunty angle and whistling something in a tricky time signature). In The Lion Of Boaz Jachin And Jachin Boaz, for example, Hoban plays beautifully with the idea of a vision (the eponymous lion) which only certain characters can see, complicating the device by situating it ambiguously in the real and mental worlds, and imbuing it with a dangerous physicality. The novel also skilfully uses a setting of unspecified place and time, and one of the book's fascinations lies in the ways this world overlaps, or does not, with that with which we are familiar. Successfully realised in this way, this kind of anonymous, atemporal environment is at once satisfyingly credible and compellingly exotic.
I lost track of Hoban's adult work, but when I heard, late last year, that he had died, my curiosity was piqued by the news that two of his children's books were being posthumously published. One of these - Soonchild -was released this year, and is an astonishing, magical and potent blend of Hoban's words and Alexis Deacon's drawings. The book describes an archetypal quest, that of the brilliantly-named Sixteen-Face John, an Arctic shaman, whose wife is about to give birth. The child, however, will not emerge, because it cannot hear the World Songs that call children from the womb. John's search for the Songs entails meetings with a series of mythical and other creatures, some dangerous situations and the requirement to solve problems, and also involves him in the discovery of a vital but lost connection with his past, about which he is only dimly aware. Hoban sidesteps the dangers of banality, bathos and cliche with which this kind of story is beset, and produces a rich, compassionate, mystical and very funny fable. In fact Hoban's uncanny ability to deploy humour in this kind of narrative, without disrupting the tone or content of the more serious matter, is for me one of the things that mark him out as a writer of genius. As for the pictorial element - I have seldom seen a book in which the illustrations were not only of such stunning quality but were so well-integrated with the text. The design and production staff involved in this publication ought to be applauded, alongside its creators.
I've been inspired by Soonchild to repair the considerable gaps in my wall of Hoban, and hope you will speed to your nearest independent retailer to scoop up a dozen or so copies of this book to give at Christmas. Keep at least two for yourself; it's always good to have a spare.